This is a unique fabric infused with the bioluminescent bacterium Photobacterium phosphoreum. In the dark it emits an ethereal blue light and I gain a great sense of privilidge being able to grasp its cold light in my gloved hand. The production of light though is exquisitely sensitive to temperature, and as this increases beyond 20 C, light production begins to dim until eventually expires completely. When I hold the cloth tightly between my thumb and palm, the heat of my body causes the light to fade, leaving a very human stain on the fabric. I’m exploring using this as a metaphor, to reflect the temperature changes envisaged with global warming but would of course have to use Silk.
Mycobacteria are an important group of bacteria which includes pathogens known to cause serious diseases in humans, including tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) and leprosy (Mycobacterium leprae). Whilst the diseases caused by this genus of bacteria can be devastating, there is a positive side to it. Mycobacterium vaccae, is ubiquitous in soil, and exposure to it has been shown to reduce anxiety, and through this effect, the ability to learn.
This is a textile which is impregnated with Mycobacterium vaccae, so that garments made with it would gently expose their wearers to a natural anxiolytic (anti-anxiety medication)and reduce levels of anxiety and stress.
Mycobacteria have an unusual, waxy coating which makes them impervious to standard staining methods, such as the Gram stain. However, the Ziehl–Neelsen stain, also known as the acid-fast stain, is a specially developed stain that can be used on these bacteria. Here some textile swatches impregnated with Mycobacterium vaccae have been stained in this manner to reveal the bacteria. The first stain component carbol fuchsin stains both the bacteria and material but when this is destained with acid-alcohol, the textile loses the dye but the acid-fast bacteria, because of their thick and waxy lipid layer retain the first red dye. When the counter stain is applied, the non-acid-fast material stains blue and the acid-fast bacteria retain the carbol fuchsin and appear red.
The pollution of our oceans, and the Earth’s other environments, by plastic debris has become a visible familiar to most of us. Most people are aware of this in its visible form, that is plastic pollution in the form of containers and bottles. It is, however, the less visible forms of plastic pollution, the so-called microplastics that are likely to represent a greater risk to the animals and plants of the oceans that their more visible counterpart. This is because a range of organisms can ingest these particles and this can transfer and concentrate chemical pollution into the marine food chain. Microplastics can range in size from a few millimetres , to being invisible to the naked eye, and it is likely that this is the most abundant form of plastic debris pollution. One particularly, insidious form of microplastic pollution comes in the form of microfibers, invisible threads of artificial polymer (acrylic, nylon etc.) that slough of our clothes, and which after the washing of clothes, pass through our sewage treatment plants in huge numbers, into rivers, and thence the oceans. In some places, these fibres make up some 80% of the microplastics found in the sea and in a recent study not a single beach was found to be free of this insidious and synthetic lint.
The images that follow are the outcome of arts research project that I carried out 200km north of the arctic circle, in order to demonstrate the ubiquity of this insidious pollutant. Nearly, all of our clothes as they are manufactured, or when they are washed, are doped with compounds called optical brighteners. These synthetic agents work by fluorescing, that is they absorb ultraviolet light (from sunlight or artificial lighting), and reemit the radiation at a different and visible wavelength, making the clothing appear brighter or whiter than it would otherwise be. With this knowledge, I knew that this normally overlooked type of pollutant would reveal itself if exposed to ultraviolet light, in that it would appear to glow. What I found was that in this naturally pristine environment, there was an astonishing amount of microfibre pollution, that revealed itself as tiny coloured and glowing threads against the backdrop of the non-fluorescent snow. In the images, the threads appear vibrate and this is because I lacked a tripod to steady the camera. Nevertheless, I really like the effect, as these small vibrating strings seem to mimic the activity of the natural aurora that was overhead at the time.
These were some experiments that I did a while ago with Kate Goldsworthy who is part of the TED group at Chelsea College of Art and Design. They are designs made using the living red pigmented bacteria Serratia marscens and the biolouminescent bacterium Photobacterium phosphoreum, and a very cool laser cutter! The laser kills the bacteria where they are in contact with its beam and this can be used to make some very fine designs.
In 1856 William Henry Perkin synthesised analine purple, the first synthetic dyestuff, and in doing so revolutionised the pigment industry.
Scientists at C-MOULD, are seeking to generate another revolution in the textile dye industry, and in doing so, to reimagine pigment production for the 21st Century. Firstly, we hope to identify non-traditional and overlooked natural sources of colour in the guise of naturally pigmented bacteria. Secondly, by applying synthetic biology to traditional sources of pigments, and by using it to tweak and subtly redirect the natural pathways for pigment synthesis, we seek to develop a unique palette of sustainable pigments. In both cases, we hope that these quasi-natural dyes, will replace the ones currently produced by expensive and unsustainable chemical processes
Here are some of our current projects:
Bacto Dyes: These unique dyes build upon the age old practice of using natural plant materials to dye fabrics. Here, however, in this 21st century craft, the sources of the natural pigments are invisible pigment factories, in the form of billions of microscopic cells of bacteria which naturally produce the coloured pigments that can be seen on the textiles.
BioMic Dyes: these exploit the trillions of bacteria that live in and on the human body to generate pigments, and thus utilize the hitherto, untapped activity of the human microbiome in this respect.
BactoIndigo: Indigo, the dye used to stain jeans blue, was traditionally extracted from plants of the genus Indigofera. Today, however, the several thousand tons of indigo used each year is synthetic and produced by large scale industrial processes with obvious consequences for the environment. This is a project which seeks to develop a sustainable form of indigo, or a replacement, using either bacteria that naturally produce blue pigments (Vogesella indigofera and Athrobacter polychromogenes) or bacteria that produce indigo itself.
Nicotine Blue: The bacterium Arthrobacter nicotinovorans converts nicotine into the blue dye, nicotine blue. This project seeks to re-purpose the tobacco industry, to produce this beautiful blue pigment rather than an addictive and dangerous drug. The final aim is to introduce the genes from the bacteria which encode nictotine conversion, into tobacco plants, so that they produce nicotine blue rather than nicotine.
Bionto Dyes: Lichens are widespread and long-lived, and have in the past been used to make dyes. However, naturally they only come in a limited number of colours. The aim of this project is to tweak the biochemistry of pigment production in Lichens so that a wider pallet of nature-derived pigments might become available.Here an orange and a grey lichen have been biochemically tweaked to produce magenta and green pigments respectively.
Here, on the surface of humically darkened and acid pools in an ancient marshland (Thursely Common), the microbiological world reveals itself, and also the activity of other creatures, and the wind.
Occasionally on the surface of an undisturbed and natural pond, a fragile and iridescent film will form. Often dismissed as just pollution, these brittle layers are in fact entirely natural, and are formed by the activity of resident iron and manganese oxidising bacteria. The films are so thin, that they able diffract light, so that they shimmer with the colours of the spectrum and have their own inherent beauty. Beyond this, these delicate films uniquely record what must be one of Nature’s most fleeting and difficult to capture phenomena, that is the footfall of small animals and insects that dwell on the surface of water (Epineustons). In addition, where a blade of grass dips into the water, and is moved by the wind, it acts like a needle and etches the movement of the wind onto the surface of the water much like a scientific chart recorder would.
What ephemeral poems would poets etch into this fragile and metallic vellum?
I came across this Dog’s Vomit Slime Mould on the trunk of a dead tree about three weeks ago at Thursely Common. On revisiting the same site today, the slime mould had disappeared from its original, spot leaving a scar, and had moved a few feet up the tree, apparently whilst no one was watching!
I’ve begun a new project to isolate magnetotactic bacteria (using organelles called magnetosomes these bacteria orientate themselves along magnetic field lines) from natural water courses. The process involves a magnetic dredging and panning step, followed by an enrichment using a capillary racetrack. I chose our waterbutt (collects rain from our roof) in the first instance and was astonished by the amout of magnetic iron that I collected from its sediment. Every day around 200 tons of extraterrestrial matter enters the Earth’s atmosphere, and most of this is in the form of micrometeorites. Most
of these are made from iron, and they are thus magnetic, so it’s tempting to speculate that the magnetic material in the water butt comprises these which have hit our roof and then been concentrated in our water butt by rain. It’s more likely though, that this material, given its quantity, is anthropogenic iron, that is part of the tens of thousands of tons of iron particles and dust that daily enter the Earth’s atmosphere, from engines of all kinds, fly ash from coal fired power stations etc. Makes you wonder what all of this iron is doing to the environment.
Immortal Worlds? is a collaborative project between artist Jac Scott and myself, with our initial investigations being funded by an A-N New Collaboration Bursary. The focus of the project is on mapping the unseen, but vitally important world of bacteria and, particularly how climate change will impact on these organisms, which underpin all of the Earth’s many diverse and living ecosystems. We aim to create innovative and collaborative studies that will not only experimentally and critically engage art and science, but will also spark debate about our rapidly changing world. Our initial explorations have been to replicate natural microbial ecosystems from important environments like salt marshes, wilderness areas, and various water courses, and then to mimic the predicted effects of global warming, like increased temperature, in the laboratory, and finally to observe the outcome. These images are from microbial ecosystems that have been established from a salt marsh in Blakeney, Norfolk. One set of ecosystems has been incubated at temperatures that we might encounter today, and the others at a higher temperature that might be the outcome of global warming. The differences in the health and diversity of the ecologies is both striking and frightening, the low temperature ones flourishing and exhibiting great diversity, with the higher temperature systems being dominated by a form of grey monotonous life and appearing far less balanced.
The inspiration for this work is a research paper that I published in 1997. Entitled “Integration of Heterologous Plasmid DNA into multiple sites on the genome of Campylobacter coli following natural transformation” we demonstrated that certain types of bacteria can naturally take up any DNA that they are mixed with, and integrate this into their own genomes.
In the light of the research above, I have added my own DNA to the column knowing that some of it will be taken up by the bacteria in it and be integrated into their own genomes. In a sense, I have hacked this bacterial ecology, and corrupted its genetics, so that is now a human/bacterial chimera. The Winogradsky column is also a self-sustaining and perpetual ecosystem, so that over time the sequence of my integrated DNA will be begin to change and mutate, as the bacteria containing it evolve. They will eventually change the meaning of the information embedded within my DNA, and perhaps at some future point in time, redirect its purpose to suit there own ends.